Officials Failed to Sound Alarm on 2016 Russian Meddling to Avoid Portraying Voting Systems as 'Insecure'

Government officials feared that warning the public about ongoing efforts by Russia to subvert the 2016 U.S. elections would sow discord in the integrity of America's voting systems, according to a report released Thursday by a Senate panel's bipartisan investigation into election interference.

The 67-page report was issued by the Senate Intelligence Committee after 200 witness interviews and reviewing 400,000 documents. Although largely redacted, it reaffirms much of which is already known about Russia's extensive efforts to undermine an American election.

The report revealed that officials at "all levels of government" were concerned with eroding election integrity and thus chose not to offer detailed warnings to staffers at the state level, which in turn led local officials to not react with "any additional urgency," causing "confusion and a lack of information."

"In 2016, officials at all levels of government debated whether publicly acknowledging this foreign activity was the right course," the report stated. "Some were deeply concerned that public warnings might promote the very impression they were trying to dispel—that the voting systems were insecure."

Following a breach in Illinois by Russian actors in June 2016, FBI "flash alerts"—warnings of potential cyber security threats alerted to local authorities—were issued to several unidentified states in August. But the alerts flagging specific IP addresses lacked enough information for state officials to properly address them.

"For most states, the story of Russian attempts to hack state infrastructure was one of confusion and a lack of information. It began with what states interpreted as an insignificant event: an FBI FLASH notification on August 18, 2016 [redacted]," the report states.

In mid-October, neither Homeland Security nor the Multi-State-Information Sharing & Analysis Center "identif[ied] the IP addresses as associated with a nation-state actor."

"Given the lack of context, state staff who received the notification did not ascribe any additional urgency to the warning; to them, it was a few more suspect IP addresses among the thousands that were constantly pinging state systems," the report says. "Very few state IT directors informed state election officials about the alert."

officials failed to warn Russian election meddling
A woman exits a polling station after voting in the presidential election on November 8, 2016. in Newport, New Jersey. EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty

The release of the report came just hours after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked votes on two election security measures proposed by Democrats and one day after former special counsel Robert Mueller testified before congressional panels, where he told lawmakers there were continued efforts by Russia to influence American elections.

"It wasn't a single attempt. They're doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign," Mueller said of Russia. "Much more needs to be done in order to protect against these intrusions—not just by the Russians, but others as well."

His 448-page report concluded that Russia interfered in 2016 in a "sweeping and systematic fashion."

Despite Mueller's warning, Senate Republicans have since blocked four votes on bills that would bolster election security systems and laws throughout the country since he testified.

"In 2016, the U.S. was unprepared at all levels of government for a concerted attack from a determined foreign adversary on our election infrastructure," Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican, said in a statement.

He added DHS and "state and local elections officials have dramatically changed how they approach election security" but said "there is still much work that remains to be done."

The committee's top Democrat, Senator Mark Warner, concurred with Burr, but went a step further to say the White House and all lawmakers should take notice.

"I hope the bipartisan findings and recommendations outlined in this report will underscore to the White House and all of our colleagues, regardless of political party, that this threat remains urgent, and we have a responsibility to defend our democracy against it," he said in a statement.

Although previously declassified in a January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment, Democrats on the committee reiterated the intent Russian actors had at the time in the report.

"The Russians were 'prepared to publicly call into question the validity of the results' and 'pro-Kremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP, on election night in anticipation of Secretary Clinton's victory,'" the report states.